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Decoding Maori Cosmology: The Ancient Origins of New Zealand’s Indigenous Culture

Decoding Maori Cosmology: The Ancient Origins of New Zealand’s Indigenous Culture

Автором Laird Scranton

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Decoding Maori Cosmology: The Ancient Origins of New Zealand’s Indigenous Culture

Автором Laird Scranton

260 pages
6 hours
May 8, 2018


An exploration of New Zealand’s Maori cosmology and how it relates to classic ancient symbolic traditions around the world

• Shows how Maori myths, symbols, cosmological concepts, and words reflect symbolic elements found at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey

• Demonstrates parallels between the Maori cosmological tradition and those of ancient Egypt, China, India, Scotland, and the Dogon of Mali in Africa

• Explores the pygmy tradition associated with Maori cosmology, which shares elements of the Little People mythology of Ireland, including matching mound structures and common folk traditions

It is generally accepted that the Maori people arrived in New Zealand quite recently, sometime after 1200 AD. However, new evidence suggests that their culture is most likely centuries older with roots that can be traced back to the archaic Göbekli Tepe site in Turkey, built around 10,000 BC.
Extending his global cosmology comparisons to New Zealand, Laird Scranton shows how the same cosmological concepts and linguistic roots that began at Göbekli Tepe are also evident in Maori culture and language. These are the same elements that underlie Dogon, ancient Egyptian, and ancient Chinese cosmologies as well as the Sakti Cult of India (a precursor to Vedic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions) and the Neolithic culture of Orkney Island in northern Scotland. While the cultural and linguistic roots of the Maori are distinctly Polynesian, the author shows how the cosmology in New Zealand was sheltered from outside influences and likely reflects ancient sources better than other Polynesian cultures. In addition to shared creation concepts, he details a multitude of strikingly similar word pronunciations and meanings, shared by Maori language and the Dogon and Egyptian languages, as well as likely connections to various Biblical terms and traditions. He discusses the Maori use of standing stones to denote spiritual spaces and sanctuaries and how their esoteric mystery schools are housed in structures architecturally similar to those commonly found in Ireland. He discusses the symbolism of the Seven Mythic Canoes of the Maori and uncovers symbolic aspects of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha in Maori cosmology.

The author also explores the outwardly similar pygmy traditions of Ireland and New Zealand, characterized by matching fairy mound constructions and mythic references in both regions. He reveals how the trail of a group of Little People who vanished from Orkney Island in ancient times might be traced first to Scotland, Ireland, and England and then on to New Zealand, accompanied by signature elements of the global cosmology first seen at Gobekli Tepe.
May 8, 2018

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Laird Scranton is an independent software designer who became interested in Dogon mythology and symbolism in the early 1990s. He has studied ancient myth, language, and cosmology since 1997 and has been a lecturer at Colgate University. He also appears in John Anthony West’s Magical Egypt DVD series. He lives in Albany, New York.

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Decoding Maori Cosmology - Laird Scranton



Introduction to the Maori

I initially undertook to write this book in the summer of 2003, shortly after having self-published Hidden Meanings: A Study of the Founding Symbols of Civilization (later republished by Inner Traditions as The Science of the Dogon). The manuscript for Hidden Meanings had begun simply as an organized set of working notes that I had kept for my Dogon studies. Over time, these notes grew in length to the point where they approximated a book, and so I made the decision to self-publish them. During this same period of self-study, I had acquired a copy of New Zealand ethnographer Elsdon Best’s Maori Religion and Mythology, had noticed similarities between the Dogon and Maori cosmologies, and had been reading it for comparison to the Dogon. Although outwardly the Dogon and the Maori are distant cultures with no obvious links of heritage (one located in Northwest Africa and the other in Polynesia), I could see that the Maori concept of the po as an atom-like component of matter was a match for the similar Dogon concept. Likewise, details of the Maori esoteric tradition and how it was passed down from generation to generation were quite similar to the Dogon tradition. These practices implied that, despite the great distance between cultures, the symbology of this tribal culture from New Zealand must have arisen out of a system of cosmology that was substantially similar to that of the Dogon.

By this early point in my studies, I already understood that language could be a key to correlating ancient concepts between cultures, so I did a cursory review of a Maori-English dictionary to test the limits of possible correspondence. The dictionary revealed certain areas of linguistic overlap, but it also reflected significant differences in word forms that I was not yet competent to explain. Year after year, as each new book in my series on ancient cosmology was brought to completion, it again became my intention to take up these studies and develop a book about Maori cosmology. But inevitably, some logical next phase in my comparative work from Africa to Egypt, India, Tibet, and China would assert itself and convince me to set the Maori project aside, with hopes of continuing it at some future date.

More than a decade later, I now look on these delays in process as having been fortuitous ones. Each project that pushed its way ahead of the Maori book brought with it a degree of familiarity with yet another era of ancient cosmology that I now see as having direct bearing on the Maori tradition. Moreover, each cosmological era was characterized by certain key terms and mythic themes drawn from its own related language.

For example, I believe that insights into the archaic era of Gobekli Tepe can often be found in Turkish word forms. The matriarchal era of the Sakti Cult is perhaps best reflected in Tamil roots of the Dravidian languages in southern India. The Vedic, Buddhist, and Hindu eras express themselves in Sanskrit. Terms of the Neolithic era of the cosmology can be recognized through comparison to words of the Faroese, Icelandic, and Scottish-Gaelic languages. Similarly, the Dogon era of the cosmology came into focus for me through the correlation of Dogon words and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic words, which often take the same form as Hebrew words. The Maori system of cosmology, which is rooted in a relatively recent historical period, is couched in a language that seems to be an effective clearinghouse for the cosmological words of each of these prior eras. To find these words commingled within the Maori language implies that each era is likely to have had an ancestral influence on the Maori tradition.

For those who may not be familiar with regions in Polynesia, New Zealand is a spectacularly scenic island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, situated to the southeast of Thailand and just east of the continent of Australia. It consists of two main landmasses, known as the North Island and the South Island, along with a number of other smaller islands. Because of its remote location, New Zealand was one of the last lands on our planet known to be permanently occupied by people. The Maori (maow-ree) are a native tribal group of New Zealand and are considered by many to have been the original inhabitants of these beautiful islands. Maori tribal groups were found to be living in New Zealand when European explorers first arrived. In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European explorer to happen upon New Zealand, at which time he reported finding a population of nearly one hundred thousand Maori residing there, located primarily in the northern regions of the North Island. In 1769 the English sea captain James Cook landed in New Zealand and made the first efforts to map the islands. It was not until 1814 that Christian missionaries arrived in New Zealand and attempted to convert the native population to Christianity. Although the Maori culture rested on many of its societal advancements, these missionaries also brought outside education and skills of literacy to the natives, along with instruction in techniques of agriculture.

Tradition holds that the Maori felt no need to identify themselves by a collective name until the Europeans arrived. At that time they adopted the name Maori, a term that means native or indigenous. In the words of their native language, the Maori refer to themselves generically as the tangata whenua, the human beings of the earth, or indigenous people of New Zealand. Although they are traditionally understood to have been the first group to populate the islands, the Maori are thought to have migrated to New Zealand by canoe in comparatively recent times, less than a thousand years ago (circa 1200 CE), from a mythical homeland in eastern Polynesia called Hawaiki. An official government website in New Zealand states, New Zealand has a shorter human history than any other country. The precise date of settlement is a matter of debate, but current understanding is that the first arrivals came from East Polynesia in the 13th century. It was not until 1642 that Europeans became aware the country existed.¹

One knowledgeable commentator, a New Zealand public servant and scholar named Edward Tregear, took exception with the conventional timeline for the arrival of the Maori in New Zealand, arguing that there is evidence to suggest that Maori settlement on the islands must have occurred at a much earlier date. Tregear, who lived and wrote in the late 1800s and early 1900s, devoted much study to the history of the Maori, to comparative Polynesian linguistics, and to the Maori language. These studies led Tregear to compile an authoritative dictionary of their language, as well as to author other books about Maori history and culture. Tregear writes in his 1885 book The Aryan Maori, "If [Maori] genealogies are to be trusted, the canoes bringing them [to New Zealand] arrived only two or three hundred years ago. I believe that those who have studied the subject most are unanimous in declaring that the Maoris have been in New Zealand very much longer; that, from the very extensive cultivations, fortifications, etc., New Zealand gives evidence [to this fact].²

From the beginning, the Maori are understood to have relied primarily on hunting and gathering for their subsistence, but they are also known to have cultivated gardens and to have fished and made use of other bounty from the sea that surrounds the islands of New Zealand. From these resources, the Maori are thought to have developed a good standard of living, although a comparatively lower one than that of the Europeans who made their arrival in the 1600s.

Because the Maori are genetically Polynesian, the roots of their culture and language are also distinctly Polynesian and so bear a close resemblance to those of other Polynesian peoples. From a linguistic perspective, Tregear’s comparative Maori-Polynesian dictionary amply shows this to be the case. But since the Maori lived for several centuries in relative isolation from the outside world, their outlook on important concepts of cosmology may have also been better sheltered from outside influences and so might possibly be more reflective of ancient forms than the outlooks of people from other Polynesian cultures. In the seventeenth century, the arrival of the first Europeans in New Zealand brought the threat of religious assimilation and loss of cultural identity for many of the Maori people, along with problems that have continued into modern times. According to a 2013 census, the tribal culture consists of nearly six hundred thousand individuals and represents perhaps 15 percent of the current population of New Zealand. More than an additional one hundred thousand Maori also live in nearby Australia.

Despite the seemingly recent date of their culture, in the eyes of a comparative cosmologist such as myself, the Maori are the keepers of a creation tradition that offers many outward points of comparison to cultures from other widespread regions of the world that are demonstrably much more ancient. Even a cursory familiarity with the Maori language reveals words whose form and usage bear overt similarities to the names of significant deities and concepts of classic ancient creation traditions. From that perspective, the Maori might be seen as a largely untapped source of potentially useful information about the meanings of ancient cosmological words, symbols, concepts, and practices. Likewise, their history might provide important clues as to how the ancient cosmological tradition that we have been pursuing may have spread during historical times.

This book is the seventh in a series of volumes whose focus is on ancient cosmology and language. One goal of the series is to broaden our understanding of the outwardly similar practices of various ancient classical creation traditions through the use of various comparative techniques. Previous volumes of this series have been dedicated to the cosmologies of the Dogon (pronounced Dough-gun) tribe of Mali in Africa, the myths and symbols of ancient Egypt, the practices of Buddhism, the cosmology and language of a priestly Tibetan tribe called the Na-Khi, and the earliest creation traditions of ancient China. We have offered perspectives through which each of these traditions might be traced from an archaic source, evidence of whose influence was first seen at Gobekli Tepe in the region of the Fertile Crescent in southeastern Turkey at around 10,000 BCE. Our outlook is that this archaic influence carried forward in India through the matriarchy of the Sakti (or Shakti) Cult, whose symbology provides a close match for that of Gobekli Tepe. Traditional researchers understand the Sakti Cult to have been a precursor to the Vedic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. In our own more speculative studies, we explored likely evidences of that same cult in ancient Egypt at around 4000 BCE in the southern Nile region of Elephantine. We later picked up the apparent trail of many of these same influences in the region of Northern Scotland, where we believe they were exhibited during the later Neolithic era of 3200 BCE. In many different ways, the religious outlook of the Maori bears a close resemblance to the outlooks of people from each of the classic ancient traditions that were instrumental in this progression, and so the Maori creation tradition comes to be of interest to our studies.

Because we believe that the clearest definitions of ancient thought lie with cosmological concepts as they were first understood, priority in these studies has been given to the earliest known forms of words and practices. Likewise, because the cosmologies were commonly framed as an esoteric tradition (where inner secrets were revealed to an initiate only after a long period of sustained inquiry), preference is also given to sources known to have devoted many years of study among a given culture. One feature of ancient esoteric traditions such as that of the Dogon is that, in order to protect their innermost secrets, certain facts are known to have been deliberately obfuscated by the priests, especially in the forms in which they were preliminarily told to less-knowledgeable students. Consequently, a trusted initiate who successfully completed the studies might arrive at an understanding of a tradition that could differ markedly from that reported by less-accomplished initiates. To the extent that the broad details of a culture’s creation tradition fit the common framework of societies we have already studied, we feel justified in using specific details of those related cosmologies to help point us to the likeliest interpretations.

In the case of the Maori, because the culture itself (and our awareness of it) appears to date from an era that is much more recent than that of, say, ancient Egypt or ancient China, the earliest definitive sources we have for their cosmological concepts are also relatively recent ones. For example, in 1924, after years of life in the bush that had lent themselves to intimate and prolonged study of the Maori culture, Best published Maori Religion and Mythology, one of the first (and most extensive) books on the subject of their religion. In the opening page of the book he states, The subject of the religion of the Maori folk of New Zealand prior to the arrival of Europeans is one of which little is known, owing to the fact that no monograph on the subject has been published.³

Since that time, in the nearly one hundred years since the early 1920s, a wealth of research has been undertaken on the Maori culture, in fact so much as to make it, in the words of socio-anthropologist F. Allan Hanson, one of the most fully documented of those societies traditionally studied by anthropologists.⁴ However, Hanson adds that despite this wealth of academic research about the Maori themselves, very little work has been done to try to make their institutions understandable as sensible systems.

Because our approach in this volume is a comparative one, a primary effect of it should be to place the Maori cosmological tradition into a context. Beyond comparisons to outside cultures, whenever possible, we have tried to temper our outlook on any given aspect of the Maori cosmological tradition by comparing the viewpoints of various Maori researchers. In fact, within the body of his early book, Best often provides us with alternate perspectives from various contemporary authorities on Maori life and culture.

One frequently stated outlook of researchers of the Maori is that they had no religion in the modern sense of the word. Best writes, The ritual pertaining to native gods would not be described as ‘prayers’ by us, because, in most cases, no supplication appears therein, no benefit or boon is directly asked for, and no act of mercy craved.⁵ Best goes on to tell us that the Maori had no regular sacred holidays, that the concept of worship did not seem to pertain to their practices, and that in the Maori culture there was no sense of fear of a deity.

In accordance with the experience of those who have studied with the Dogon, or of ancient Greek philosophers who were reported to have apprenticed themselves to ancient Egyptian priests, Best emphasizes that it is a difficult process to acquire the inner meanings of the Maori tradition, which reside with the more accomplished priests. He remarks that long residence among the tribe, along with a clear understanding of their language, is required for a person to gain the confidence of one of these knowledgeable elders of the tribe.

Over the course of our studies, we have found that important aspects of the ancient cosmology rest in the phonemes that comprise individual words and on the multiple meanings of words that define their concepts. Because of this, as with the other volumes in this series, our expectation is that words of the Maori language will provide us with pivotal clues to the symbolic meanings of ancient cosmological words. In the case of the Maori, we have two primary sources of comparison for these meanings. The first is found in the overt definitions that are given to us by Best during the course of his detailed discussion of the Maori culture, cosmology, and religion. The second comes from a dictionary of the Maori language called The Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, which was compiled by Tregear. He saw very close relationships between the words of the Maori and those of other Polynesian cultures. Given the distances of separation that exist between island groups, it seems likely that somewhat different sets of these meanings may have survived with different cultures. For that reason, we may often assign similar weight to the Polynesian usages of individual words as we do to those of the Maori themselves. Best also offers his own perspectives on the meanings of Maori cosmological terms, which provide a necessary and useful counterpoint to the definitions found in Tregear’s Maori dictionary.

To the extent that Maori perspectives on cosmology align with those of other cultures we have studied, comparisons to the languages of those cultures become pertinent. In these cases, we may make reference to Genevieve Calame-Griaule’s French dictionary of the Dogon language, called the Dictionnaire Dogon, and to Sir E. A. Wallis Budge’s An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, whose word definitions we have long used to correlate to Dogon words and concepts. Although Budge’s dictionary has fallen out of favor among many current Egyptologists, its usefulness for our studies is clear. The broad body of well-defined Dogon cosmological words provides us with independent confirmation of Budge’s outlook on ancient Egyptian cosmological words.

An understanding of Maori cosmology and language is important to our studies because they seem to preserve links to each important cosmological era and stage that we have explored in prior volumes of this series. Consequently, it would be helpful to understand how those links

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